The year 2018 was a turning point in the modern history of the Catholic Church’s response to the global abuse crisis, and once again incidents in the United States played a major role. The McCarrick scandal exploded in the spring and summer of that year, following an investigation that determined the former archbishop of Washington D.C. had sexually abused a minor. McCarrick was the highest-ranking cleric in Church history to be accused of, investigated for, and removed from the college of cardinals, not for covering up someone else’s abuse but for the abuse itself; about seven months later, he was defrocked. The case spurred a number of significant developments in the Vatican: the February 2019 summit convening Curia leaders and the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences; the promulgation of the May 2019 motu proprio Vos estis; and the release of the 449-page (plus 1,410 footnotes) McCarrick Report in November 2020. But 2018 should also be remembered for a number of related incidents: the release of the Pennsylvania grand-jury report detailing clerical abuse in that state; the notorious Viganò testimony that many characterized as a coup attempt against Pope Francis; the fiasco at the USCCB meeting that November, when the bishops failed to agree among themselves and with the Vatican about proposals to tackle the new phase of the abuse crisis, which itself was followed by Francis’s “invitation” to U.S. bishops to attend a retreat at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.
Jacob Lupfer wrote recently at Commonweal on what the Southern Baptist Conference might learn from the Catholic Church now that it’s confronting its own sexual-abuse scandal. “What strikes me, looking back,” he wrote, “is how little Christian groups have learned from each other’s experience.” But what has the Catholic Church learned about itself in the last four years? As an academic trying not to write for the benefit of a specific group, I nevertheless think that the American Catholic community of scholars has responded to the scandal. Historians have focused on the roots of the crisis in this country by launching major research projects—for example, those led by Notre Dame and by Fordham. Among the national community of theologians and scholars of Catholicism, the AAR and the CTSA have set up consultation groups on the crisis. Recent books by Richard Lennan and Brad Hinze examine the impact of the abuse crisis on ecclesiology and on how we think about the Church. So it’s not as if the turn that the scandal took in 2018 went unnoticed among scholars of Catholicism.
And yet: the intellectual and institutional response here in the United States still seems somehow muted in comparison to the response in other countries, where there have been more collaborative projects at the national level, both among scholars and between scholars and Church leaders. Such projects have helped make clear the steps forward in the understanding of the theological roots of abuses and the theological consequences—in our approach to Scripture, to the tradition, to liturgy and the sacraments, and to Catholic education.
But in the United States, four years after McCarrick, there’s still a missing link between studies on the abuse crisis and synodality. At the ecclesial level, countries like Germany, Australia, and Spain have since 2018 begun to develop national synodal processes in response to the scandal. Though there are local synodal gatherings in this country, there is nothing similar to those national processes. Even in countries like France, where the synodal process is not as structured as in Germany, there have been collaborative nationwide initiatives to study and understand the crisis, like the CIASE commission and report, in which the collaboration between experts and Church leaders is evident (even if the effort has not met with unanimous support in France or the Vatican).